A History of Workers Compensation

Workers compensation is an essential aspect of labor rights and social welfare systems around the world. The concept of workers compensation acknowledges that employees are often exposed to various risks and hazards in the workplace, which can lead to injury, illness, or even death. This blog aims to explore the history of workers compensation, from its origins in ancient civilizations to its development into a comprehensive protection system in modern times.

Ancient Origins

Although the concept of workers compensation as we know it today did not exist in ancient civilizations, there were early instances of compensation for work-related injuries. In ancient Sumer, one of the earliest recorded civilizations, the Code of Ur-Nammu (circa 2100 BC) established a system where injured workers were entitled to compensation in the form of monetary or material assistance. Ancient Greece had similar practices, where injured workers received financial compensation known as “Ephedrinai” from their employers.

Industrial Revolution and Early Developments

The Industrial Revolution, which commenced in the late 18th century, marked a significant turning point in the history of workers compensation. As factories emerged and industrialization took hold, the number of work-related injuries and fatalities soared. In response, various countries implemented legislation to address this growing issue. In the United Kingdom, the Factory Act of 1833 introduced the requirement for factory owners to compensate workers injured in accidents that were deemed to be the employer’s fault.

However, it was in Germany where workers compensation truly began to take shape. In 1884, Chancellor Otto von Bismarck’s government implemented the Employers’ Liability Law. This law established the first comprehensive workers compensation system, providing benefits for workers injured on the job and their families in cases of death. This groundbreaking legislation became the foundation for similar systems in other countries.

The Development of Comprehensive Systems

Inspired by Germany’s success, many countries introduced their own workers compensation systems in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The United States, for example, implemented the first voluntary workers compensation law in 1902, in the state of Maryland. This law paved the way for similar legislation in other states and eventually led to the establishment of a federal workers compensation system.

In 1911, the state of Wisconsin became the first to enact a mandatory workers compensation law. This marked a shift from a voluntary to a compulsory system, ensuring that all workers were protected against work-related injuries and illnesses. Other states followed suit, and by the mid-20th century, workers compensation coverage was practically universal throughout the United States.

International Expansion of Workers Compensation

The idea of workers compensation spread beyond Europe and North America, reaching other regions of the world. In 1916, New Zealand became the first country outside Europe to introduce a comprehensive workers compensation system. Australia followed suit shortly after, implementing its own legislation in 1917. These early examples paved the way for workers compensation systems in countries such as Canada, the Philippines, and South Africa.

The Role of International Organizations

International organizations also played a crucial role in advocating for workers compensation and promoting its implementation globally. The International Labour Organization (ILO), founded in 1919, has been at the forefront of this effort. The ILO’s Convention No. 19, adopted in 1925, established minimum standards for workers compensation and aimed to protect workers from occupational diseases and injuries.

In subsequent years, the ILO continued to develop principles and guidelines to improve workers compensation systems worldwide. It provided a platform for countries to share best practices, exchange information, and collaborate on improving the protection of workers. Today, the ILO’s efforts continue, with ongoing work to address emerging challenges such as the gig economy and the increasing complexity of workplace injuries.


The history of workers compensation is a testament to the progress made in protecting the rights and well-being of workers. From ancient civilizations to modern times, societies have recognized the importance of compensating workers for injuries sustained on the job. By implementing comprehensive systems, countries around the world have ensured that workers receive the support they deserve, allowing them to recover and continue contributing to society.

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